who WE are
portraits of Missouri’s marginalized communities, a project
Produced by Valérie Berta-Torales


    
 The WE project is a series of portraits of people belonging to marginalized communities (the African-American, LBGTQ, immigrant and religious minority communities, among others) in Missouri. These communities share a history of systemic and pervasive discrimination, and with the rise in extremism since 2016, it has become urgent that they be seen and celebrated, and that they enjoy their rightful place within the tapestry of our humanity.
     
     In addition to shining a spotlight on people belonging to vulnerable communities, the WE project seeks to help bridge the gaps between these otherwise disparate communities by bringing them together in intersectional dialogue in order to better fight back against discrimination in all its forms (there is also a monthly meeting of WE project participants,) and to engage the community at large in a necessary conversation about diversity and equity. 


    In accepting each other in our differences we are all stronger.

    The portraits are taken against a neutral background in studio as a formal way of underlining our common humanity. I am asking of each person to submit a personal statement (whose format can range from a poem to a song to a personal narrative, or even artwork) about who they are, framed within the sense of their belonging to one, or more, of these marginalized communities and what it means to them. I am working to have the portraits printed on large panels and displayed around Columbia for the community as a whole to see, in the hope of fostering dialogue, and of fighting racism, sexism, bigotry and exclusion in all their forms.


    To date there are no established, organized and comprehensive records of the history of the African-American community in Columbia (photographs of old Black churches, photographs of community members, original documents and deeds, business records, artifacts, etc.) Only recently has the Blind Boone House been open to the public, and the erasure of the historic African-American neighborhood of Sharp End in the 1960s remains largely ignored. The African-American community is one of the founding pieces of Columbia's diverse identity, even as the city continues to be marked by both private and institutional racial divisions. 


    The L.G.B.T. community in Columbia has been largely invisible until now, and continues to face discrimination and live in fear even though much progress has been made. In Columbia its members cure diseases, run dance schools, teach, and run homeless shelters, among other achievements. Like the African-American community, they are part of the tapestry of who We are.


    There is no official documentation of the immigrant and refugee community in Columbia either, nor of the religious minority communities, and with President Trump’s aggressive policies of targeting undocumented immigrants and Muslims, many are living in fear, have gone deeper into hiding, and have essentially been silenced. Like other marginalized communities in our midst, immigrants and refugees need to be seen, their place in our community recognized, their achievements and humanity celebrated.


    Finally people with disabilities (and I am one, although a privileged one as my disability is light, having partially been deaf since I was in my early twenties) still face daunting challenges in their daily lives and continuing discrimination in the workplace, in Columbia as in our society at large. Almost thirty years after the American with Disabilities Act was passed, people living with disabilities struggle for access, from applying to entitlement programs to finding a job and navigating our communities. In Columbia they sit on committees and create schools when they are not fighting for their rights. Their struggle is our struggle, their disability our opportunity to embrace what is the best in our humanity.

    This is who WE are: we are the people.